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The US Supreme Court today kicked back a law designed to curtail Internet pornography, saying the legislation could stifle free speech and that naughty photos are likely better blocked by filters rather than lawyers.

In a tight 5-4 ruling, the high court nixed the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, which would require mommies and daddies to serve up their credit card numbers, or something similar, to enter fleshtive websites. US legislators have been looking to fine non-COPA compliant websites $50,000 and up to six months in jail for smut-serving violations.

The Supreme Court, however, has not put the matter to rest. The judges simply upheld an injunction that blocked prosecutors from using COPA to file criminal cases. The issue has now been sent back down to a lower court, which will weigh all the technological and cultural ramifications of the porn scourge.

Congress first kicked off COPA in 1998, and the act has been backed by both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Civil liberty types have long argued about the ramifications COPA would pose to free speech and plain old adult decision making.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court leaned toward promoting filters over law in the case of Internet porn.

"Filters are less restrictive than COPA," the court said. "They impose selective restrictions on speech at the receiving end, not universal restrictions at the source. Under a filtering regime, adults without children may gain access to speech they have a right to see without having to identify themselves or provide their credit card information. Even adults with children may obtain access to the same speech on the same terms simply by turning off the filter on their home computers. Above all, promoting the use of filters does not condemn as criminal any category of speech, and so the potential chilling effect is eliminated, or at least much diminished. All of these things are true, moreover, regardless of how broadly or narrowly the definitions in COPA are construed."

In addition, the court noted that filters could help block foreign porn.

"Filters also may well be more effective than COPA. First, a filter can prevent minors from seeing all pornography, not just pornography posted to the Web from America. ... In addition, the District Court found that verification systems may be subject to evasion and circumvention, for example by minors who have their own credit cards. Finally, filters also may be more effective because they can be applied to all forms of Internet communication, including e-mail, not just communications available via the World Wide Web."

In total, today's opinion more or less assures the porn battle will continue for a couple more years. Click away, lads. ®

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